Australia is set to join the handful of countries that allow women to serve on the front lines. But many fear that women simply are not strong enough.
Although Australia currently allows women to serve in 92% of military roles, many would like to see the other eight opened up to women as well. In the next several years, women will hopefully be able to serve in any of position in the military, which will allow recruiters to hire based on physical ability alone, without having to account for gender or age requirements. The U.S. has also seen a recent movement toward opening certain positions to women. While there most likely will not be American women "on the frontlines" anytime soon, there has been a growing movement to allow women to serve on submarines. And, even more importantly, women are already serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women have played a key role in this war without frontlines.
Naturally, some are opposed to the army's growing acceptance of women in the ranks. Time magazine quotes former military officer and opposition lawmaker Stuart Robert, who argues that women are physically no match for men. "It's like putting a woman in the ring with Mike Tyson, or putting them in the Wallabies [a male rugby team]," says Robert. "Why do they separate men and women in the Olympics? Maybe they should all compete in the same events?" Despite the fact that women would be given the exact same physical fitness tests as men, Robert claims even the women who qualify are still going to be weaker than the men. He points out that the reality of war is different from the controlled environment of the tests. "On a route fitness assessment you may be forced to carry 25 kg," he says. "But can you carry that weight when you haven't slept for days? Can you carry that weight after parachuting in the rain and landing in the mud?" It's pretty obvious that Robert is not really worried about their physical strength, because surely male soldiers often become weakened and tired by the stress of war, but their mental strength. What he is really saying is women just can't hack it. We'd like to see him tell that to Command Sergeant Maj. Theresa L. King, who was featured in a profile in the New York Times last week as part of a series on Women at Arms. King recently became the female first drill sergeant in command of a school, which puts her in a unique position to influence the basic training of U.S. soldiers. Furthermore, the Times notes, King aces every single physical fitness test. According to all accounts, King is one of the best - not just out of the women, but out of the entire army. "When I look in the mirror, I don't see a female," she said. "I see a soldier."
But King is one of relatively few women who have ascended to the top positions. One of the reasons fewer women make it to the top ranks has to do with the difficulties of being a mother at arms. And many women are forced to deal with daily sexual harassment from their fellow soldiers, and all too often, rape. One of the other argument against opening up the front lines to female soldiers has to do with their perceived vulnerability to sexual assault:
Many also argue that women in combat pose a security risk to their nation's mission because as hostages, they are potentially more vulnerable to rape and torture than their male counterparts. "You have to admit that, yes, conceptually, it's more likely that women would be in more danger," says McKinley. "I am not convinced that it would have to be the case, but it is possible." Men, after all, are also subject to sexual assault and abuse as prisoners.
Surprisingly, no one in the Time article even so much as mentions the sexual assualt already happening in the military. Robert is more concerned that women could be used as a tool to manipulate men. He worries that women could be tortured in front of their male peers, which would force them to reveal state secrets. "The attitude with men [in capture] is just 'Suck it in and welcome to captivity,' but if they watching a woman suffer like that, it's a whole different ball game," he says.
As it is, Australia won't see women serving on the front lines for at least several years. However, if the standards are revised to allow women into the 8% of jobs currently barred to them, Australia will join a select group of countries, including Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and Denmark, which allow female soldiers in direct combat. Maybe once they do, men like Roberts will see that there are some women strong enough, both physically and mentally, to fight alongside men.
How Soon Will Australia's Female Soldiers Be On The Frontlines? [Time]
Army Medic Jacqui De Gelder Shows Women Are Already Serving On The Front Line [News.com.au]
A Call To Allow Women To Serve On Submarines [New York Times]
Drill Sergeant At Heart Ascents To Army's Top Spot [New York Times]
Living And Fighting Alongside The Men [New York Times]
Women At Arms Series [New York Times]
Image via About.com: Women's History